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Hunding's Saga - 17: Taking the Riverways, South Along the Dnieper to the Black Sea and Miklagard

Updated on June 23, 2019

Gateway to the Black Sea and Miklagard

Trade beckons - the profit motive takes men far from their homelands in search of new luxuries
Trade beckons - the profit motive takes men far from their homelands in search of new luxuries | Source
River routes around the east from Denmark and Sweden
River routes around the east from Denmark and Sweden | Source

On leaving Holmgard Tofig turned to Hunding,

'You will need to be sparing with your silver when we come to river-heads', Tofig told Hunding, 'and not to spread it in the palm of your hand'.

'How is that?' Hunding, beside Tofig at the steering oar, absently watched hawks diving, catching smaller fowl, lifting them sharply away into the trees that lined the River Volkhov's upper reaches. 'What was that about silver?'

'I said you will need to be sparing -', Tofig started again.

'I heard that', Hunding broke in, 'I was merely asking about coming to the river-heads. Why do I need to be sparing with my silver?''

'The Slavs and neighbouring tribesmen want paying for helping our ships between river-heads, but do not over-pay them. It makes life harder for those coming after, or for when we are on the way back'.

'How much would you pay them?' Hunding stared at Tofig in the afternoon light. He was feeling drowsy with watching the ship's wake in the river as they passed between high banks.

'Haggle', Tofig answered simply.

'Starting where?' Hunding was wide awake up now. The men were rowing slowly against the stronger current, and from time to time needed to put in at the riverbank to eat and gather strength

'Two pieces of silver', Tofig answered. He dug into his coin bag with one hand, the other still on the steering oar. He showed Hunding, 'Like these, with the eagle. Have you any of them?'

Hunding dug into his own coin purse and drew out a pair of silver pieces with Svein Forkbeard's head on them. 'What about these, are they worth the same?'

'What matters is whether they know these coins, whether they have seen them before', Tofig took one of Hunding's coins and turned it over between his fingers with his left hand. 'Show them the coin from this side'.

'Show them this side?' Hunding pondered, looking at the casting. There was a bird on it, true, but it was no eagle. Were they that simple? 'They could never fall for that, could they?'

'Not that they fall for it, but if they see a bird on the coin they will link the two birds and take your coin, bite it in proving for themselves that they are silver, and see it as the same thickness. To their eyes, then, your coin will be of as much worth as Vladimir's', Tofig smiled at Hunding's arched brows. 'Believe me. Give them the coins with the bird uppermost and see if I am not right'.

'We will soon find out', Sverri had come aft to know what it was they were talking over. He pointed to the men on the shore with their oxen, 'The Slavs are on the riverbank waiting for us. This is where we get out'.

'This is where we go overland to the next riverhead', Tofig nodded. 'From there we drift downriver a short way to where another troop of Slavs waits with their oxen to take us overland to the Dnieper'.

'How long does that all take?' Hunding's jaw dropped, thinking of the silver he would have to part company with when he saw there were at least ten men waiting to manhandle the ship over the runners. These were stripped logs, set across the track in the way he told his Aenglish friends to lay them near Maeltun. 'Is that two coins per man?'

'I've not seen this many before. As we will be helping them heave the ship over the land bridge, there does not need to be more than five, one to whip the oxen on, the others helping us', Tofig counted the men as 'Braendings Slange' neared. Ten; he had not miscounted.

Sverri leapt from the ship first and headed for the nearest of the oxen handlers. He yelled out and held his arms wide as in welcome,

'Yuri!' What followed sounded like gibberish to Hunding. Tofig watched Sverri grab each of the men in turn, bear-hugging them and going on to the next.

'Does he know them all?' Hunding asked in wonderment.

'He does, aye. Do you not know the men who help you on your way in Northanhymbra?' Tofig answered, smiling as Yuri made for him. They hugged, Yuri kissed Tofig on both cheeks and Hunding laughed. Aesc and his Aenglish crew-mates stared at the show of affection bestowed on Sverri and Tofig.

'Your turn', Tofig turned to Hunding as the burly Yuri came toward him and almost crushed him, a torrent of greeting deafening him. 'You have been in Aengla Land for too long, I can see'.

'Aenglish men do greet one another, but not like this', Aesc nodded before he was bear-hugged by one of Yuri's friends, who smelled as if he ate raw onions whole. 'You greet the oxen like that as well?'

Sverri roared with laughter,

'You Aenglishmen are droll!' He put Aesc's question to Yuri in his own tongue and the fellow almost fell to the ground with mirth, holding himself and telling Sverri something in turn to pass on to Aesc. 'Yuri thinks you should be Lord Valdemar's fool. Where do you get this wit from?'

'I thought Lord Valdemar himself was droll - when you were tied to that post in the freezing river for a start!'

Sverri did not bother telling Yuri the last part, leaving him standing, wondering what was said. The haggling began shortly after they had landed, Hunding showing his coins to Yuri. Head-shaking followed, Tofig thumping down more silver, more head-shaking, Hunding adding one more silver coin. Yuri bit the coins, frowned and held out the coin to one of his friends, who also bit it. 'If they bite into the coins much more', hunding thought to himself, 'they may as well keep them'.

He did not want tooth-marked coins in his purse. In the end the head-shaking ended, and eager nodding began. Hunding was ten silver coins poorer when Yuri's men hitched up the the oxen. This would all have to be done again! Hunding swore under his breath. At least there were only two land-crossings. This way.

'What is the next land-crossing going to be like?' Hunding asked Sverri as they sweated in the late afternoon sun.

'Worse', Sverri grunted. 'This is nowhere near as much of a climb!'

Hunding groaned and looked back downhill at the river below.

'Hey, watch how you go, Hunding!' Tofig warned. 'Look where you are going. You might have lost a foot there!'

Hunding felt chastened. Yuri's men grinned cheekily at him. They did not understand what had been said, but they must have understood the meaning. He would have to keep his wits about him if he were to gain from this errand of Prince Valdemar's. Ahead was thick woodland as far as the eye could see, with a wide swathe cut between the trees for hauling the ships. By and by, however, he glimpsed something shining in the shallower light of the sun. Nevertheless, before they reached the Dvina work would be hard stopping the ship sliding downhill ahead. The oxen were unhitched when it was safe to do so, where the ground levelled, before the steep woodland bank.

'We camp here for the night', Sverri told Hunding.

'Here?' Hunding looked about, and then back at his friend. 'What about wolves?'

'What about them? We shall not be bothered whilst the good weather holds out. This is the fore-year, the best time for working. In the summer the sweat would pour from our foreheads, believe me! Our next overland crossing will be harder'.

'You said', Hunding remembered.

'And steeper', Sverri added.

'You said that, too', Hunding laughed. 'Do we share our food with them?'

'They have their own. They would not eat ours anyway. Their food is much more fatty; they work off the fat and tastes are different, that is all', Sverri settled down to making a fire.

'How long will it take us to reach the Dnieper?' Hunding asked Tofig when he neared with a bag of food to share out amongst the crew of Braendings Slange.

'By the end of the week we will be there', Tofig offered Hunding bread and cheese.

Wolves howled way off to the east from amongst the thick forests of the headwaters. Night came quickly. Guards were posted by the ship, changed twice during the night and again early the following morning the crew readied themselves for another fraught day.

'The overland crossing between the Dvina and the Dnieper will take twice as long', Sverri told Hunding whilst they all ate. 'We will need to watch our belongings in Belarus. We start hauling downhill soon, keep your wits about you and watch where you are going. I do not mean to be rude, but you seemed half asleep yesterday'.

'Sorry', Hunding chewed idly at his bread, swallowed a mouthful of ale and stuffed the last morsel of cheese into his mouth before throwing the bread crust into the trees for the small birds.

'No need. We all look after one another. You have done your part, beating Lifing. This is our turn'. This afternoon we will be in Vitebsk. In three days we will be in Moghilev. From there we can take it easier, downriver all the way to the Black Sea. We have to watch out for sudden storms on our way from the mouth of the Dnieper to the Bosporos'.

'We shall have earned Valdemar's silver!' Hunding swore quietly to himself and realised Yuri was staring at him. 'Does he want something?'

'No, he is just interested in you. He thinks you are cold', Tofig laughs.

'Cold?' Hunding grinned. 'Good man. Yuri - you care for your fellow man!'

Tofig passed on Hunding's words and Yuri hugged him again, planting kisses on either cheek.

'He meant unfriendly. Next time you will be more careful with your words, Hunding', Sverri joked. 'Back to work, lads!'

Next - 18: Down to the Black Sea

Viking age portage across Russia between the latter half of the 10th to 11th Centuries, AD 950-1000
Viking age portage across Russia between the latter half of the 10th to 11th Centuries, AD 950-1000 | Source

You might have read about portage...

For those of you not in the know, 'portage' was the movement of ships between the riverheads through the east between the Baltic and the Black Sea. I've explained it more fully elsewhere in this series, but basically crews had to heave their ships overland - often steeply up and downhill - between the rivers, using rollers or felled trees. Crews are likely to have left the rollers when they pushed the ships back into the water, to use them on their way back, or other crews might use them. Sometimes logs were embedded in the earth and ox-crews help the ships' crews for payment, manhandling the vessels with the aid of their beasts. Payment would usually be in silver, part of the spoils or rewards set aside for this purpose. This was a small sacrifice to pay, to ease passage with untold returns promised at markets in or near havens: Birka in Sweden, Kaupang in Norway, Hedeby in Denmark or Jorvik with its network of rivers south into Mercia by the Trent or Don Valley, north and west to the Dales by the Wharfe, the Aire, Ure and Swale. north east to Malton along the Derwent.

Rurik the Rhos or Vaeranger (Varangian)

Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov shows Rhos or Vaeranger (Varangians) being greeted by Slav envoys on landing after a voyage across the Eastern Sea (Baltic)
Painting by Viktor Vasnetsov shows Rhos or Vaeranger (Varangians) being greeted by Slav envoys on landing after a voyage across the Eastern Sea (Baltic) | Source
See description below
See description below | Source

Without Rurik's Rus warrior class there would have been no Russia, and without their Slav paymasters the Rus might have gone on sooner to Constantinople, and the Varangian Guard might have been established sooner. Would that have been Russia's loss? Certainly the state that grew from the Swedish Norsemen being there would have had another name, or it might have been a cluster of smaller princedoms - definitely not the giant it became. .

© 2011 Alan R Lancaster


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